If you've been shooting any sports, or in public with other photographers recently, then you've probably heard some "buzz" about Alienbees. Alienbees flashes have been on the market for a while now, and have accumulated an almost "cult-like" following, and for good reason too.
First off, when we are ordering new products, we look for several key components. Price, quality, effectiveness, and customer service. We have found that Alienbees offers great prices, reliable and effective products, and out-of-this-world customer service. Making it a slam dunk for photographers.
Price-wise, even the most expensive Alienbees (with a battery pack for portability: read battery review here) are competitive with the top hot-shoe flashes on the market, but provide far more power! Plus, you can run multiple flash heads off one batter making it even cheaper. Obviously hot-shoe flashes have certain advantages that these don't, like TTL, zoom, and ultra compact portability. But that's what you have to deal with when using large and WAY more powerful studio heads that will overpower the midday sun with ease.
When shooting action sports with Alienbees, the flash duration (length the flash is fired for in one pop) is one of the most important things to keep in mind. Too long a duration and the action becomes blurry since flashes require slow shutter speeds. With studio strobes, the fastest (and best for action) duration occurs at the highest power settings.
Alienbees offers 4 models: B1600 (640WS), B800 (320WS), B400 (160WS), and the new Einstein which is the same power output as the B1600 but has more features. The top of the line model is the Einstein, but if you don't require all it's extra features, and tons of power, the B800 is probably the best option at 2/3 of the price. The flash duration is twice as fast as the B1600, and the flash weighs and costs less. Plus, it has double the power of the B400, which is much needed in bright situations.
If you have the extra money, the Alienbees Einstein flashes allow you to choose a mode with faster durations called "action" mode, or a slower duration but more consistent color output mode. It also has the same power as the B1600 which is the most the company offers in the Alienbees product line.
We wouldn't recommend the B400 as a starter flash, becuase you might find it isn't powerful enough for many situations, especially if the athlete is far from the unit. If this is your market, it's probably best to go with a hot shoe flash because they are more portable anyway.
With any studio flashes, the duration gets faster with a higher power setting. This means that you will want to shoot at the highest power setting you can to really freeze the action. We mention flash duration so much, because with action sports the subjects are generally moving fast so it's one of the most important features to look for with flash. If you have too much light, just move the flash back further to keep that fast duration.
The Bottom Line
APS recommends the B800 and a VagaBond Mini Powerpack as a great starter kit for action photographers. The flash has a fast enough duration for action use, and is more portable when combined with the VagaBond Mini then almost every other option on the market. And on top of that it gives you a ton of flashes per charge. All of this, plus a price that is FAR lower than almost every other studio flash, and customer service that always has your back. If you do have more money, check out the B1600 for a boost in power.